Fairfax OKs body-camera pilot for police

About 230 Fairfax County police officers in early 2018 began wearing Axon body-worn cameras as part of a 90-day pilot program. Members of the Board of Supervisors in September 2019 agreed to provision all county police with body cams. (Fairfax County police)

Starting next May, Fairfax County police will spend three years equipping 1,210 officers with body-worn cameras that will help police gather evidence and resolve allegations of officer misconduct.

The Board of Supervisors, despite some qualms about the program’s cost, voted unanimously Sept. 23 in favor of a phased-implementation plan for the cameras.

Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), who chairs the board’s Public Safety Committee, had “somewhat mixed feelings” regarding the program’s initial and recurring expenses, but said the cost was “well-taken” given that the goal was to enhance public confidence in the police department.

“It’s about accountability,” he said, noting that the cameras were a major recommendation of the Ad-Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, which supervisors formed after the fatal police shooting of Kingstowne resident John Geer in August 2013.

During the first year, the program will be financed with about $4.3 million from the $5.57 million available in a reserve fund. In subsequent years, the funds will be a baseline budget item amounting to an estimated $5.5 million in fiscal 2021 and about $6.65 million in fiscal 2022.

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. in June 2015 suggested implementing a camera program i and the ad-hoc commission in its final report reached the same conclusion that October.

County police in 2018 conducted a 180-day pilot program at three of the police department’s eight district stations: Mason, Mount Vernon and Reston. Half the officers at those stations worn the cameras and half did not.

American University’s Department of Justice, Law and Criminology evaluated the program and found “overwhelming support among community members for widespread adoption” of the cameras. Most members of the public who interacted with county police during the program reported positive feelings about the police department and the study did not find evidence that the presence or absence of body-worn cameras affected community members’ perceptions.

The consensus among county police officers was that the cameras would aid in evidence gathering and help resolve complaints against officers. Most officers reported that the cameras did not affect their behavior or that of community members.

County officials hope the camera program will improve officers’ safety, reduce complaints against police, decrease the number of use-of-force incidents and provide information that will enhance officers’ training and the development or revision of police policies.

The program’s implementation will necessitate the hiring of 34 full-time employees, including five for the police department, 23 for the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and six for the Department of Information Technology.

The camera program will kick off in fiscal 2020 with the assignment of 416 cameras to the three stations that participated in the pilot initiative. Police would issue cameras to 338 officers in fiscal 2021 and 456 in fiscal 2022.

The plan also calls for cameras to be issued to officers at the new South County District Station, which is slated to open in early 2023, and to school-resource officers serving in the county’s middle and high schools. Those latter officers sometimes work cases outside the school system, but the Board of Supervisors and School Board will have to decide whether to allow the cameras to be worn inside public schools.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said the camera program will allow police to document their interactions with the public, which many people already record with their own electronic devices.

“So often, an incident is captured by someone using an iPhone or some kind of video equipment,” she said. “I think it’s all the more critical that we have our own internal evidence about what happened.”

Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) was concerned about the program’s cost, but said the cameras had shown their worth while being tested at Mason District Station.

During the pilot program’s first week, some people with “too much beer and time on their hands” had been shooting at an occupied building. Camera-equipped officers responded to the scene, and when shots rang out again, they triangulated the shots’ place of origin and within a few days arrested the suspects, Gross said.

A member of the Police Citizen Review Panel reported that seeing camera evidence made a major difference in settling allegations against police, she said.

“That was pretty powerful testimony,” Gross said. “And if that’s the way it’s going to work, then I think that we really are well-served by moving forward on this proposal.”

Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield) said the camera program would have “significant recurring expenditures,” but he supported the initiative because “building trust is critically important.”

Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said county officials thoroughly researched the camera proposal before advancing it.

“I don’t know if there’s a jurisdiction in the United States of America that has studied police body-worn cameras more than we have,” he said.

Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said police and the public will benefit from the program.

“I think this is a tool that makes not only our officers but our public feel better,” she said. “I think people know that when there’s a light on you, you act accordingly.”

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